First Day of School

Girasole, Watercolor, 9x12, $75

As I was going through my little “ideas folder”, looking for projects to round out my arts courses this semester, I ran across an old article I’d clipped (out of an actual newspaper; it was a long time ago) and saved.

As relevant now–or maybe more–than when I first read it as I was beginning my very first teaching job outside of grad school, the article, “Art for Our Sake” by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland is about why art should be taught in schools. It presented a couple of the usual tropes, then smashed them, especially the one that says that using a creative part of the brain allows students to learn math, science, etc. more easily. (There is actually no scientific basis for this belief).

What makes me sad, just as we’re enduring another round of cuts to arts education because of our current “double-dip” recession, is how the research in this article shows that students learn important skills from art class that they’re not learning anywhere else, in a curriculum based on memorization and standardized tests.

When my students go outside to paint and draw the landscape (as we’re going to do this week), they’re going to learn a few techniques, yes. We’re going to explore how to translate a three-dimensional scene believably onto two-dimensional paper, including mixing paint, and proper studio practices. But they’re learning much more, and mostly skills that can’t be measured on standardized tests, and which are therefore ignored in classes that “teach to” these tests.

I won’t go into all of the skills here, but some of my favorites mentioned in the article include:

  • persistence (our class, after all, is four hours long)
  • reflection (I’ll ask students to step back from their easels and assess what they’re doing)
  • self-criticism (that assessment may lead to changing things around because they don’t like what they see)
  • willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes (I’ve already advised my students not to throw away any of their work, especially their very worst drawings; that’s how they’ll learn the most)
  • making connections between class work and the world outside the classroom (whether we go out on the lawn to draw, to a gallery on a field trip, or look at Powerpoint examples of how a few famous artists struggled with the same issues). These connections between a student’s own artistic work and the real world could mean making a landscape painting look believable, addressing a social issue through an artwork, or looking at how marketers use color to persuade consumers to buy.
  • moving past preconceptions. Leaves are green, so I’m going to paint all these leaves the same. Are they? Which branches have light shining on them, making their leaves lighter? Are the leaves on that elm tree a lighter or darker green than the pine tree next to it? Than the grass the tree is growing out of? Which trees’ leaves actually seem more yellow (or blue, or purplish-red, etc) when you give them a more careful look?

The article makes the case that looking beyond preconceived expectations is even more important outside of art class, and is practically a job requirement for any profession. (This has been on my mind recently as I watch the trailers for a movie I can’t wait to see, based on a book I loved: Moneyball, the story of how an upstart baseball executive found new ways to analyze game statistics, in order to judge the true worth of players to their teams. Unexpected statistics led to the ability to acquire better players for less money, and in the case of the Red Sox, remake the team and win a World Series for the first time in 86 years! Getting rid of the old notions of what makes a good player has remade the entire game of baseball).

But I digress. That’s for another post.

The arts article goes on to explore how the educational system could adapt, in order to educate students so that they’re equipped to deal with the complex problems the world is facing. Spoiler alert–their solution is not to rely on art classes to let students just “express themselves” (though I’m not denying that’s important), or hope that using another part of their brain will cause their test scores to rise. Their answer is rather to make academic classes more like art classes–let them rely on investigation, experimentation, and real-world data, not memorization and timelines.

As an artist and teacher, this is a great way to start the year, validating the approaches I’ve been using in the classroom, and backing them up with data (which I didn’t address very deeply here). Even though it bothers me that short-sighted budget cuts are hampering our students on a fundamental level, I hope my students, and others, can take the skills they learn in class and apply them in other parts of their lives.

Here’s to a great school year!